I picked up the 25-year-old Swiss backpacker I’d be traveling with for the next six days from the airport on Tuesday morning sight unseen.
A few people (all men) had replied to my ride-share post on the Couchsurfing message board but Christoph was the only one who seemed up for a mellow, unplanned wander, and had no ulterior motives. I’m extremely displeased that some new members use CS as a dating site, something I and many other sincere users have long scoffed at. Anyway, Christoph seemed legit and I ignored friends’ worried eye rolls when I told them what I’d be doing. I didn’t realize until I was on my way to the airport that he was two letters shy of sharing my ex-husband’s first name.
Commence social experiment.
Sweet-tempered, world-wise, and reassuringly responsible Christoph turned out to be the perfect random road trip buddy. He’d been living in rural Nepal for two years building schools and leading mountain treks, and for his latest adventure had driven a tuk tuk across Sri Lanka, which is where his flight arrived from that day. There would be plenty of adventure stories to fill up our hours in the car together. How we’d fare after six days of shared car space, sleeping quarters, and meals was another question we’d only have the answer to later.
We immediately headed south for the three-hour drive from Auckland to Waitomo, stopping for lunch and swapping stories all the way, and checked into Juno Hall, a BHH hostel set on an idyllic farm among rolling electric green hills that would be a recurring backdrop to our week.
Oh, and the driving on the “wrong” side of the road I was complaining about in the last post? Not so bad. Once I got going I was a natural.
We made a few quick friends and grabbed one of them (an actual person, not the deer above) for an evening hike to some caves I’d heard about to see if we could spot a free glimpse of the glowworms the area’s known for.
If you grew up in the States in the 80′s the words glow and worm might evoke this creature, the Glo Worm:
This is most definitely not what these little guys look like. A glowworm isn’t a worm at all. It’s actually a glow-in-the-dark gnat larva, or to put it bluntly, a sparkly maggot. And yes, this is what I (and the millions of other tourists that come through Waitomo every year) was mostly here to see.
Anyway, over an hour’s torch-lit hike in the damp New Zealand night and not a single sighting later we headed back to hit the guidebooks and set plans for the week.
Wait, you remember I don’t use guidebooks, right? Every so often when time’s limited I think, Let’s look at a guidebook and plan some things out to make the best use of time. So I gave it a go.
An exasperating hour later the guidebooks were chucked. Stop looking at those things, said Christoph, You’re driving yourself nuts! The Rough Guide and Lonely Planet proved underwhelming with their hundreds of pages of florid but empty prose. We opted (as was the original intent) for the go-with-the-flow whatever-happens-happens model of road trip non-planning. We had a rough idea of what direction we’d head in and our time proved better spent hitting up fellow travelers for advice.
Waitomo Glow Worm Caves
The next morning at the visitor’s center we chose to visit the main cave. Just a walking and boat tour. Other operators offer wetsuit-clad spelunking adventures and the like, but there are more interesting caves in the world that are better worth your money for that sort of trip. The stalagmites and stalactites here are unimpressive shades of beige, beautiful for sheer size but lacking iridescent wow factor.
Our guide was a Maori woman whose grandfather had given the original tours of the cave, long before safety rails and walking paths. He’d bring people in through the river at the bottom mouth and they’d make their way in by boat under the constellation of the insects’ ruse.
You see, these pretty little phosphorescent flecks we’d come all this way to see were, it turns out, an elaborate death trap.
Hanging down from each of those bright mock stars is a sticky silk and mucous strand, invisible in the pitch black of the cave, connected to the larva’s mouth. Flying nsects, tricked into thinking they’re flying toward the night sky get trapped and pulled up to their deaths.
It’s a soap-operatic microcosm, as most are in the insect world, a tragically short-lived cycle rife with cannibalistic territorial disputes whose sole purpose is procreation before a quick demise. The adult fly isn’t built to feed itself and mates immediately upon emerging from larval stage. The female lays around 100 eggs, and then everyone dies and the cycle starts over.
The serenity of the caves isn’t to be missed. The early morning tours, as ours was, use less lights and create a subdued peaceful atmosphere. It was beautiful to be in this subterranean chamber in complete darkness, staring up at these little dots of blue-green light as if at the stars. Unlike the mass of scattered lights depicted in the brochure, the actual larval lights are more organized, evenly spaced, with geometric precision.
The last few minutes of the tour our group climbed into a boat and were led, again in complete darkness, down the river, craning our heads back, lost in the quiet darkness and endless-seeming star world above.
I confess if I were an insect in that cave I’d probably have flown giddily upward to my death hypnotized by their glow.